Summary and book reviews of The Last Pilot by Benjamin Johncock

The Last Pilot

by Benjamin Johncock

The Last Pilot by Benjamin Johncock X
The Last Pilot by Benjamin Johncock
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    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Jul 2015, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2016, 320 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs

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About this Book

Book Summary

Set against the backdrop of one of the most emotionally charged periods in American history, The Last Pilot is a mesmerizing debut novel of loss and finding courage in the face of it from an extraordinary new talent.

"Harrison sat very still. On the screen was the surface of the moon."

Jim Harrison is a test pilot in the United States Air Force, one of the exalted few. He spends his days cheating death in the skies above the Mojave Desert and his nights at his friend Pancho's bar, often with his wife, Grace. She and Harrison are secretly desperate for a child - and when, against all odds, Grace learns that she is pregnant, the two are overcome with joy.

While America becomes swept up in the fervor of the Space Race, Harrison turns his attention home, passing up the chance to become an astronaut to welcome his daughter, Florence, into the world. Together, he and Grace confront the thrills and challenges of raising a child head-on. Fatherhood is different than flying planes - less controlled, more anxious - however the pleasures of watching Florence grow are incomparable. But when his family is faced with a sudden and inexplicable tragedy, Harrison's instincts as a father and a pilot are put to test. As a pilot, he feels compelled to lead them through it - and as a father, he fears that he has fallen short.

The aftermath will haunt the Harrisons and strain their marriage as Jim struggles under the weight of his decisions. Beginning when the dust of the Second World War has only just begun to settle and rushing onward into the Sixties, Benjamin Johncock traces the path of this young couple as they are uprooted by events much larger than themselves. The turns the Harrisons take together are at once astonishing and recognizable; their journey, both frightening and full of hope. Set against the backdrop of one of the most emotionally charged periods in American history, The Last Pilot is a mesmerizing debut novel of loss and finding courage in the face of it from an extraordinary new talent.

MOJAVE DESERT
MUROC, CALIFORNIA
OCTOBER 1947

The house was part of an old ranch stuck out in the desert scrubland near Muroc, in the high desert of the Mojave, fifty miles west of Victorville. It had a narrow veranda, dustbowl front yard and picket fence. It was called Oro Verde; Green Gold, after the alfalfa that once grew there. The ranch sat on the edge of Muroc Dry Lake, the largest slab of uninterrupted flatness on Earth. Forty-four square miles. Every December, it rained, the first and only of the year. Four inches would collect on the lake's dry surface in a slick pool. The wind pulled and dragged the water, licking the wet sand smooth. In spring, it evaporated and the orange sun fired the ground hard like clay, creating a vast natural runway. The sky was a dome, endless blue; vast and clear and bright. The high elevations of the Mojave were the perfect place to fly. In the thirties it had been home to some godforsaken detachment of the Air Corps, nicknamed the Foreign ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Much of The Last Pilot takes place in the desert, and Benjamin Johncock provides readers with wonderful, atmospheric descriptions of the landscape. Why do you think he dedicates so much space to describing the land? And why was the Mojave Desert chosen as the site of the Air Corps flight tests?
  2. Near the beginning of the novel, Johncock gives us a scene of Pancho, Grace, and Glennis drinking at the Happy Bottom Club, listening to the broadcast of a dangerous flight test Glennis's husband, Chuck, is manning. Why does Johncock chose to gives us this scene from the women's perspective at the bar rather than the perspective of the men at the airfield?
  3. Pancho is one of The Last Pilot's most colorful characters and is based on ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

The Last Pilot is an impressive debut and will earn Johncock many fans, myself included. It's recommended for those interested in the early years of the space race, as well as anyone looking for fine literary fiction about love and loss.   (Reviewed by Kim Kovacs).

Full Review (661 words).

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Media Reviews

The Washington Post

Flying through these pages, you'll recall that dynamic era when a mix of physical science and political anxiety propelled the United States to unprecedented speeds....But if these guys have the right stuff, they also have personal lives that burn as dangerously, and that tension makes The Last Pilot hypnotic . . . The effect is supercharged Hemingway at 70,000 feet.

The Boston Globe

A remarkable achievement... [readers] will surely find comfort in these pages, lit by the fire of 1960s adventure, and also by the blazing beauty of a new literary star.

Kirkus Reviews

An ideal read for history buffs and Space Race enthusiasts.

Library Journal

...this first novel is engaging and believable, and it's compelling to revisit the events of the space program.

Booklist

While realistically describing the struggles Harrison faces in finding the courage to transcend a personal tragedy in the service of his country, Johncock also draws on true-life historical details to tell, in beautifully measured prose, a riveting good yarn.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. [An] impressive debut...Jim's story is fascinating, and the author writes with a strong ear for dialogue, which rattles the pages with intensity. A marvelous, emotionally powerful novel.

New Statesman

His descriptive writing has a clean grace that recalls Cormac McCarthy...Benjamin Johncock's story and characters take flight: this is a very promising debut.

The Daily Mail (UK)

A taut domestic drama whose stringent prose evokes the emotional and physical landscape of a time and a place, this is a remarkably accomplished debut.

Author Blurb Joanne Harris, New York Times bestselling author
This is by far the best debut novel I've read in years.

Author Blurb Kim Edwards, No. 1 New York Times bestselling author
Told in language as beautifully spare - and unsparing - as a desert or a moonscape, The Last Pilot reminds us in powerful ways that the real unknown frontier still lies within the mysteries of the human heart.

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

The Space Race

Much of The Last Pilot revolves around the United States' participation in the technological contest between the US and the Soviet Union involving conquests in outer space.

The Space Race had its origins in Nazi Germany prior to the outbreak of World War II. Military scientists and engineers designed ballistic missiles and liquid-fueled rockets, both of which were made to carry warheads longer distances than previously thought possible. At the war's conclusion, the technology and the scientific experts ended up in the United States and the USSR, thereby boosting these countries' weapons programs, escalating the conflict that became known as The Cold War.

The Sputnik Although both countries were concentrating on designing rockets that could ...

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